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Speech to Candidates Meeting, London 1997

Paddy Ashdown (Liberal Democrat)

Location: London

Fellow Liberal Democrats, thank-you all for coming here today. I hope you enjoy the opportunity to compare notes, hone your techniques and finalise your plans - and go back, in fighting spirit, for the final straight ahead.

The first thing I want to say to you all is thank-you.

The first of you were selected to fight this election more than four years ago - many of the rest of you soon after. Since then, you have been working your socks off in your communities.

The casework and the canvassing, the delivering and the door-knocking, the planning and the press releases - I know what it's like because I did the same between 1976 and 1983.

I know you have been doing a great job, because I have seen you doing it.

Its know it's hard work - but I also know that all the effort works.

And the result of all your hard work is that in the key seats we are fighting to win, we are better-placed than we have ever been before.

Look at the results of last May's local elections in our best-prospect seats, and it is clear how far we have come since 1991 - and how well-placed we are for the campaign ahead.

With five solid years of success behind us, we have the best-ever launchpad for a General Election.

With the Conservatives having to defend their broken promises and appalling record, and Labour now apparently content to offer no alternative whatsoever, this Party has a crucial duty, a clear role, and a strong message.

Our duty is to prevent the other parties ducking the issues they would rather not address.

Our role is to place before this country the real choices before us as we enter the next Millennium.

And our message is that, as Britain faces its future, in all the things that matter to people - investing in education, improving our NHS, tackling crime, protecting our environment, getting people back to work, giving people their say on Europe, and cleaning up the mess of our politics - it is now only the Liberal Democrats who will make the difference.

Today is the 1,749th day of this Parliament. The election could be called within the next 50 days.

Every day so far has been a day wasted when we could have been putting this country back on track. Every day left must be spent reminding people of the Government's broken promises and failed policies, and making clear how every Liberal Democrat vote and every Liberal Democrat MP elected will make the difference.

Right now, the nation has to endure the phoney war - and I can't think of a better description than "phoney war".

Negative campaigning. Personality attacks. Posters at dawn. Politics a yawn.

There is a real danger that Britain will go to sleep in the next election - and a real danger that this country will sleep-walk into the next century

And that seems to be what some people want.

Remember the infamous Maples Memorandum, setting out the Tories' election strategy for the NHS?

"The best result for the next 12 months", John Maples said, "would be zero media coverage of the National Health Service".

Well, that's reassuring then, isn't it? The fact is the Tories don't want to talk about the NHS because they know no-one trusts them on the NHS.

Remember Gillian Shepherd's leaked memo on education:

"Insufficient resources now threaten the provision of education in the state school sector including grant maintained schools".

No wonder the Tories don't want to talk about the state of our schools, because they know that no-one trusts them to look after their children's education, either.

And Labour are even more frightened. So frightened that the tax bogeyman will scare voters back into the arms of the Tories, that they won't say anything credible at all!

We have a Conservative Party so desperate not to look like that they have run out of ideas that they have abandoned conservatism for cranky right-wing experiments. And we have a Labour Party so terrified of scaring people with socialist experiments that they're doing all they can to appear conservative.

In the Conservatives and Labour, Britain has two parties whose problem is their past. The Conservatives are haunted by their record. Labour are terrified of their reputation. So instead of looking forward, both parties are obsessed with making up for their past.

An election contest in which the other two parties are constantly looking over their shoulders is a disaster for this country. What Britain needs is a party that concentrates on the future. And that's why the Liberal Democrats are so important.

Consider last November's Budget.

Conjuror Ken Clarke's great con-trick. Less tax, more spending. At least that's what he would have us believe.

No-one believed him, of course, because after all their broken promises, no-one believes a word the Tories say these days.

And people were right not to believe him, because underneath - it was one great smoke and mirrors con-trick.

A con for our Health Service. A con for our schools. And a con for our local communities.

Nothing for the future.

All the way through the Budget debate we have been clear where we stand. Malcolm Bruce has been clear. I have been clear. And across the country all of you have been clear as you have campaigned for better education and healthcare.

Solid in our principles. Confident on our ground. Clear in our message: Our children's schools before tax bribes. Our hospitals before tax bribes. Britain's people before tax bribes.

What of Labour? They moaned and groaned a lot at the time, of course. But they were so frightened about their past record, that when it came to decision-time, all they could do was abstain on the crucial tax vote.

Then they said they would tell us what they would do instead. So we waited and we waited and we waited.

And this Monday - a result! Our speed reading team - fresh from the Scott Report - charged through Labour's equivalent of the Budget Red Book - analysing every dot and comma.

It looked familiar. It was familiar. In fact, it was exactly the same. Except where last November the plan read "Kenneth Clarke", it now read "Gordon Brown".

Now note, this was the Budget which at the time Labour's Deputy Leader said was an unfair Budget for the few and not for the many. Now, Gordon Brown says this is the way it has to be.

That Labour should be nervous about its past I understand.

That Mr Brown wants to make no more promises than he can deliver, I am pleased.

That he wants to ensure that Labour will never again return Britain to punitive rates of taxation, I am even prepared to applaud - even though I know some of his MPs would not.

But what I cannot understand is how Labour can spend six months telling us the Tory Budget was a fraud which hid tax rises to come, and now tell us they will follow it for the next two years.

What I cannot understand is how Labour can spend eighteen years condemning policies which have done such damage to our country, and now say it is right to adopt them.

And what I cannot understand is how this country can achieve the investment it so badly needs without anyone having to pay a penny.

I don't want taxes in Britain to be a penny higher than they have to be. But to rule out the possibility of any tax increase whatsoever is a counsel of despair for education, for the NHS, for our public services and for the country as a whole.

If all that changes after the next election are the names on the nameplates above Number 11 and Number 10 Downing Street then I genuinely fear for this country's future.

What Britain needs is a different way of doing things. And it is now crystal clear that only the Liberal Democrats will offer something different at this election.

Policies to protect our environment.

Policies to create a strong, stable economy and to help people back to work.

Policies to tackle crime and to help people feel more secure on their streets and in their homes.

Above all, policies which show people that there is a party prepared to stand up for decent public services - for our Health Service, and for the education that is so vital for Britain's future.

Not to throw money at these services. You know as well as I do that that is not a solution - and that people are fed up with giving politicians a blank-cheque.

So here are the undertakings we give on tax.

That any extra taxes we ask for will be targeted, specific, costed, and independently monitored to see that they deliver value-for-money.

We will target any extra money on investments to improve the quality of people's lives.

We will be specific about where the money will be spent and what it will achieve.

In the Health Service: free eye and dental check-ups for everyone; maximum six month waiting lists between diagnosis and treatment, achieved within three years; more staff on wards with enough money for 10,000 more nurses or 5,000 new doctors; and a halt to bed closures until the mess of the NHS is sorted out.

In education, the guarantee of nursery education for every three and four year old in Britain; smaller primary classes; better teaching in secondary schools; and better training and adult education later on.

We will see that every promise we make has a bill attached.

We will ensure independent monitoring to see that extra money is spent where we say it will be spent and that it improves standards.

And we will insist on minimum waste and maximum value-for-money.

We already do. In local government, the Government's own figures show that Liberal Democrat local education authorities spend less on bureaucracy than either Labour or the Conservatives.

That's our approach in local government. I want it to be our achievement in national government, too.

We will wage war on waste and get rid of unnecessary bureaucracy in the Health Service and in education - starting with 20 million pounds wasted on the Government's madcap nursery vouchers scheme alone.

You see, education is the key to our national success in the years ahead. And what our schools and colleges need are not crazy right-wing experiments - but solid investment and improvements in standards.

No-one should be in any doubt: if education is to be a battleground at the election then the Liberal Democrats have the strongest arsenal.

A recent survey in the Times Educational Survey showed that 61% of headteachers support the Liberal Democrat education policy, compared to 30% who backed Labour and just 8% who backed the Conservatives.

Education is his priority, John Major says.

And Tony Blair says it's his passion.

But it's Paddy's extra pounds and pennies which hard-pressed teachers and anxious parents prefer.

They know they have been let down by this Government.

But they know they cannot rely on Labour to make things any better.

They want the Liberal Democrats because they know that in education, as in the NHS, the Liberal Democrats are now the only party who will make a difference after eighteen years of Tory government.

That is a very powerful message.

The Liberal Democrats are the challengers to the Tories at this election across great swathes of Britain.

Look at a map of the seats the Tories are defending in a few months time and across more than half of it, its the Liberal Democrats who are in second place, snapping at their heels.

And we are hard on the heels of Labour in all those places where ordinary people know the sad, bad reality of Labour in power.

In Newbury, Christchurch, Eastleigh and Littleborough and Saddleworth, the Liberal Democrats have shown that we can beat the Conservatives and triumph over Labour. Now we must do the same, all over the country.

In local government, we have shown people that where we win, they win. That must be our message in this election, too.

We are now the strongest liberal force in Britain for 60 years After the next election, we can be stronger still.

And that will be good for Britain entering the next century with two old parties obsessed with the past.

We have the strength to succeed. To make the difference after the next election on every street, in every school, in every hospital.

I have great confidence that many of you in this room will be joining the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party after the election - so after today, get back out there and make sure it happens.

Good luck and good campaigning. For every one of you - it's time to go for gold.

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